In October 2011 at age 58 and on top of her game, Paula Madison quit her high-profile job as an NBC executive vice-president to research her family’s roots.
Raised in Harlem with brothers Elrick and Howard Williams, Madison recalled being often told by their Jamaican-born mother, Nell Vera Lowe, that she was separated from her father, Samuel Lowe, a Jamaican-Chinese shopkeeper, at age three. He went to China in 1920 and never returned.
After her mother died nine years ago, Madison vowed to find her grandfather’s descendants in China.
Madison’s cousin, John Hall, who resides in the Greater Toronto Area, bought a DVD of Canadian filmmaker Jeanette Kong’s first documentary, The Chiney Shop, which was screened at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Scarborough during Asian Month celebrations in 2012.
After viewing the documentary, Madison recognized that Kong was the ideal person to help her find her family in China.
Migrating from Jamaica in 1974, Kong was in South Dakota shooting her second documentary, Half: The Story of a Chinese-Jamaican Son, when Madison contacted her.
“I told her I was busy putting the finishing touches on the documentary for the upcoming Toronto Hakka conference at York University that year,” said Kong.
In a haste to meet the Canadian filmmaker, Madison – a former NBC senior vice-president of diversity and the first Black woman to become general manager of a major news network in the United States when she was promoted to president and general manager of KNBC in 2000 – and her brothers attended the October 2012 conference.
From that meeting emerged the seed that blossomed into Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China, which debuted at the Pan African Film Festival in February 2014. It will make its Canadian premiere at the ReelWorld Film Festival next month.
“It’s quite an amazing story,” said Kong, the film’s director who was a TVO producer/director for 13 years before becoming an independent filmmaker. “It has done really well with screenings in Hawaii and in San Diego.”
Last year, the documentary was nominated for an African Movie Award in the “Best Diaspora Documentary” category.
The 88-minute film was shot in Toronto, when Madison and her brothers were here for the conference; Mocho in Clarendon, Jamaica where Lowe owned his first shop; in St. Ann’s Bay, where he ran a successful business and in Shenzhen and Guangzhou in China.
In December 2012, Madison, her brothers and 16 family members went to China to meet with relatives there. The trip culminated in a reunion with a documented lineage dating back 3,000 years to 1006 B.C.
The reunion led to Madison and her brothers going into business with cousins in China. In April, Harper Collins will release a book on the odyssey.
Driven to produce documentaries about her family’s background and the Chinese experience, Kong – whose Hakka Chinese father was a shop owner in Jamaica – is developing two films with clan links.
“My dad kept a journal when he left Hong Kong in 1949 detailing stops he made in Yokohama, Japan, Hawaii and San Francisco, where he took a train to Miami and then flew to Jamaica,” said Kong, who has a Master’s in media production from Ryerson University. “It’s a first person narrative that will tell us a lot about the migration experience.”
The other film project she’s working on has a Canadian connection.
Kong’s father-in-law, mother and brother were among nearly 3,000 civilians held at the non-segregated Stanley Internment Camp in Hong Kong during World War II. The camp was used by Japanese Imperial Forces to hold non-Chinese nationals after their victory in the Battle of Hong Kong.
Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China has been selected as the ReelWorld Film Festival’s opening night gala film. It will be shown on March 4 at the Cineplex Scotiabank Theatre, 259 Richmond St. W. It will also be screened on Sunday, March 8 at Cineplex Odeon First Markham Place Cinemas, 3275 Highway 7 at 3.30 p.m.